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Authors: David Wiltse

Prayer for the Dead

BOOK: Prayer for the Dead
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Chapter 1

nearthly cries rose from the group
in black in Section Ten. The women were keening in shrill, high-pitched tones alien to a land accustomed to stifled sobs and low moans. There was something counterfeit about this grief, something entirely too public and overdone, like a Mediterranean funeral packed with hired mourners. Dyce knew the real sound of sorrow, and it was no banshee cry for general display. True grief was something to be borne, not vented. It froze the heart and stilled the soul, transforming everything within to a heavy, leaden state that never truly lifted. It weighed like pennies on the eyes and dragged the body to a torpor that matched the spirit’s. One did not have the energy to wail or pound fists so theatrically for the benefit of others. A real sufferer withdrew to a dark place like a wounded animal and conserved himself.

Dyce knew the sounds of grief, the slow measured tones of sorrow, the drained, pale, dolorous look of sadness. This black-clad band of shriekers were indulging themselves and seemed as foreign to the graveyard of New England as a desert dweller’s tent. He looked at them with contempt, willing them gone. One of them caught his eye: a little girl with dark hair and enormous eyes who had drifted from the group. She seemed as offended by this overly demonstrative expression of grief as Dyce was. One of the adults in the group, perhaps her father, turned once and summoned her to return with a quick motion of his hand, then turned back to the open grave, adjusting his hat.

Instead of obeying the paternal command, the girl moved toward Dyce like a mote in sunlight. Her progress slowed as her attention drifted first to a bouquet of flowers on a grave, then to twigs on the walkway, and finally to the cawing of a distant crow.

Dyce liked children because, although they questioned everything, they did so out of pure curiosity. What they discovered, they accepted without censure. They never questioned the fact of
He fit neatly enough into the wide category, adults; children, unlike their elders, did not distinguish certain members of that category as “odd,” “different,” or “peculiar.”

Dyce knew she was still approaching even after he’d turned his back to her. He heard her stop a pace behind him where he squatted on the grass. He knew without looking that she was wondering what he had found to study so intently. Using a blade of grass, he gently touched one of the threads of the spider’s web that was strung between the headstone and the plastic flowers in the funerary urn. The spider raced forward, then stopped. Sensing trickery, it quickly withdrew to the edge of the web. Dyce knew he would not be able to fool it again.

“I got lucky,” Dyce said, as if he had been speaking to the girl all along. “Usually the spider will react only to the movement of its real prey. They make very specific movements when they’re caught, and if I happen to duplicate them, it’s just luck.”

The girl squatted beside him on the grass. Dyce did not look at her. Now using the blade of grass as a baton, he pointed to the web. “It’s like a tightrope act in the circus. There are some threads he has to walk on to keep from getting stuck himself The other threads are very sticky, and even he can’t go on them. But he never makes a mistake. Or at least I’ve never seen one caught in his own web.”

The girl reached forward and Dyce caught her hand at the wrist. He was careful not to squeeze or frighten her. “You’ll break it. It’s very strong on its own scale. The main threads are stronger than steel for their size. But it’s not meant for humans.” He released his grip but did not remove his hand, letting her do that, wanting her to feel she was still in control.

“You can blow on it,” he said. The girl hesitated. Dyce blew softly and the web swayed, the spider riding the bucking threads with unruffled ease.

The girl leaned forward and blew, softly at first, then harder. Dyce allowed himself to look at her. Her dress, a pale blue party frock with the ribbons removed in concession to the occasion, had been ripped in several places at the hem. Dyce felt a surge of anger at the ritual being imposed upon the child.

“Who died?” he asked.

“Sydney’s bubbe.”

Dyce looked at the group of mourners. They were chanting now, the shrieks of grief easily and conveniently converted into the sonorous, false comfort of religious rhythm. No one in the group seemed to miss the child’s presence.

“They made you look at her, didn’t they?”

“Yes.” The girl blew at the web again, trying to dislodge the patient spider with her wind.

“Did you want to?”

“I told them I didn’t want to,” she said.

Dyce nodded. “But they said you should, they said you had to.”

Dyce could picture the event, adults pushing the child toward the open coffin, telling her to show a love and respect she neither felt nor understood. He imagined the faces of the adults bent over her, serious but urgent with their own needs, leaning too close to her, breaths fragrant with smoke and garlic. One of them would have picked her up, held her over the deceased, prodded her to kiss the waxen skin, fuller and less wrinkled now than in life. She would have been lowered toward the mask of death, protesting, powerless, frightened, as voices murmured their notions of duty to her and the odor of preservative and heavy cosmetics filled her nostrils. Dyce quivered with a deep pang of sympathy.

“Did they make you kiss her?”

The girl made a face of distaste. “She was Sydney’s bubbe,” she said.

“Did you look closely?”

The girl stood, losing interest. Dyce resisted the urge to restrain her. “Did you look closely?” he repeated.

The girl took a hesitant step away from Dyce. She did not want to stay with the man and his spider but neither did she want to return to the moans and foreign chants.

“Wasn’t she beautiful?” he asked.


The others wandered past him in their informal procession, adrift and purposeless now that the ceremony was over. The little girl was in the middle of them, each hand held by an adult, like a prisoner shackled to warders. She looked toward Dyce through the shifting bodies. There was no particular meaning in her expression; he was just a momentary diversion to her, and he accepted that but nonetheless could not suppress a desire, a longing really, to have a child of his own.

Dyce reflected on the women he might marry, the kinds of mothers they would make, and the kinds of children he might have. There was Gisella in accounting, a shy, serious young woman who did not shave her legs. Dyce felt a certain warmth in her presence, but her intensity made him uneasy. He suspected her of strong convictions about things like macrobiotics and holistic medicine. There was a blonde who tended the cash register where Dyce shopped for groceries. She was plump and sweet and always acted as if Dyce’s arrival were the event she had been awaiting all day long. In the few minutes it took for her to price and pack his few supplies, the blonde always managed to have a conversation with him. Thinking about it, Dyce realized he actually knew quite a bit about her. Over the past few years she had volunteered information about her birthday—which Dyce had forgotten—her mother’s failing health, her own weight problems. She had a habit of commenting on his groceries, declaring whether or not she was allowed to eat each item—a minor smash with her car, which cost her more than she could afford, her feelings about the melodramatics of the royal family as reported in the tabloids by her counter. She had spoken to him of airline crashes, her new hairdo, a rash of racial incidents in Boston. Once, Dyce recalled, she had been uncharacteristically quiet and her eyes were red from weeping. Surprising himself, he had asked her if anything was wrong. When she told him she had had a fight with her boyfriend, Dyce had felt a surge of jealousy that puzzled him.

He speculated on life with the blonde checkout girl. He could not decide what kind of mother she would be. Nor could he remember her name, although the tag on her uniform seemed to dance before his eyes.

Dyce rose from the graveside and swept the spider web away with a swipe of his hand. He rolled the threads into a tiny ball and flicked them away, then walked to where the workmen were shoveling fresh gravel on the paths. A tall, weary-looking worker raked the stones level, reforming the edges with an almost geometrical sharpness. The man watched Dyce pick up a few of the stones and examine them.

“For my grandfather,” Dyce explained.

The man shrugged and returned to his raking.

Dyce selected one of the more symmetrical of the stones, one that was nearly round and as wide as a quarter. The dust of the rock crusher was still on the pebbles, and he felt it both grainy and slick between his fingers. Dyce placed the stone on the gravestone and walked away, feeling the other two stones in his palm, rolling them as if they were dice.

When he reached his car he tossed one of the stones aside and dropped the other in his pocket. It was only then that he remembered what he had waiting for him at home.


The man dreamed he was dreaming. The inner nightmare had him wrapped in the coils of a human-headed serpent that bobbed its face close to his own, staring at him with oddly benevolent eyes. His limbs were wrapped and immobile, but somehow the familiar face of the serpent kept him from feeling great fear. There was a certain comfort in the bondage, just as there was a degree of reassurance in the mildly bobbing face. Even when the human head detached itself from the serpent and drifted off on its own, he was more interested than frightened.

In his dream he watched himself within the nightmare and wondered at his lack of concern. Within the dream as in the dreamer’s dream he felt only a sort of somnolent unconcern. Perhaps I am drugged, he thought, meaning within the serpent’s coils. Perhaps I feel so relaxed and torpid because I am drugged, or there is magic in the serpent’s scales, a soothing poison that has lulled me into serenity.

The detached human head opened its mouth as if to speak and more serpents slithered out. The dreamer told himself not to be alarmed: It was only a dream, and even when the little serpents attached themselves to his eyes and cheeks and ears he was more curious than upset.

The dreamer watching the inner dream analyzed it detachedly. They are not true serpents but eels, he thought, and they are there only to suck your blood. And that is why the man caught in the nightmare was so calm—he was losing blood. He was weak from the loss, but the blood was being siphoned out for medical reasons. There seemed no cause to be agitated. There was nothing to be done about it in any event. He could not move and did not have the strength to try.

The detached head opened its mouth again and issued a scraping sound. That is something else, thought the man in the nightmare, which then dissolved and left only the dreamer within the dream. And then another sound, and the dream evaporated and the man dreaming opened his eyes.

He came to consciousness as if stepping out of a set of Russian dolls. Even once he was finally awake, he did not at first believe it. With the same calm as in the dreams, he beheld the scene before him. Clumps of black lace, like moss from a Mississippi oak, hung down in a series, moving from left to right. The older ones to the left were black as soot but they grew lighter, lifting through shades of gray, as they progressed toward the right. In the far right corner of the ceiling were threads of nearly translucent white, not clumped in a mass but spread with geometric precision. He realized the sooty clumps were cobwebs, spun and abandoned and left to gather dust and decay, while another new one was built by the spider that moved now on the latest web in the corner.

An insect had flown into the web and was still struggling violently as the spider pounced. With speed and dexterity it wrapped the insect, paused, wrapped it again. The insect continued to struggle within the cocoon as the spider retired to the edge of the web to wait. Several other packages hung down on single threads, moving in delicate sympathy with the one still-living prey.

He observed with the serenity of a Buddha as the struggle of life played itself out before him. Spiders must live, too, he thought. There was a place for all things in creation and nothing they did could disturb him. He was vaguely aware that he could not move, but this did not trouble him, either. There seemed no need for motion; the spectacle before him was enough for anyone and he had never felt more comfortable. His body seemed to collapse into the padding with the complete surrender of a man into the arms of his lover. The straps were as reassuring as swaddling to a babe. They did not restrain him so much as hold him together.

He slowly became conscious that something was in his mouth, but it did not matter either since he had no need to speak. He did not want to think about it in any event; he wanted merely to drift, perhaps sleep some more.

And then the cobwebs moved in a breeze created when a door was opened, and the man felt a sudden wave of terror. His skin lurched to life, then tingled. He tried to scream, but the obstruction in his mouth kept his tongue down. Forcing air from his lungs, he could feel the tape across his lips tug against his skin. Only a muffled sound emerged, more a moan than a cry.

BOOK: Prayer for the Dead
10.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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